Nostalgia, Gender Expression, and The identity of Lewis Carrol

Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carrol, took a deep dive into children’s literature and came out with the beloved classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: a tale of the whimsical journey of young Alice through a fairy tale land in which she engages with many magical happenings and peculiar characters. Despite the innocence of such a tale, Dodgson himself seems to be a point of controversy. Not only is his photography under fire, in which a popular subject of his photos were young girls, some of which were taken in less-than appropriate attire, and even nude, as well as having a fixation, and possible inappropriate relationship, with an Alice Liddell to which the piece of fiction is more or less inspired by (Masters). These points have split views on Dodgson, as one flags his behavior as wildly inappropriate and the other more sympathetic and views his actions less as predatory and rather just overly friendly to his “child friends” (The Guardian) .Though I have my own opinion on the matter, Perhaps there is another take on Dodgson’s behavior. After reading Hemmings’s take on nostalgia, maybe it’s possible that Dodgson’s  employs nostalgia as a way for him to experience life lived as a young girl.

In Robert Hemmings’s take on nostalgia, there is the point that it is an adult concept that re-materializes childhood in a manner that best comforts the adult’s wishes and wants. He specifically quotes James Kincaid , who notes that nostalgia is a  concocted and enforced childhood innocence by adults toward children (Hemmings 56). If you look at nostalgia by this definition, then you see it as a desire to go back not specifically to something the nostalgic person had before, but what they could have possibly had. Its an envious look at childhood mixed with wishful thinking of just what could have been. It is also brought up that nostalgia is a sort of imperialism that is meant to take over the realness of the past (57). If we define nostalgia as this sort of social imperialism and apply it to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then we get an understanding of that sort of reconstruction of truth at hand.

When I  apply these concepts to Dodgson and look at his troubling interest in retrospect, I see that Dodgson quite possibly struggled with gender identity and had longed to have experienced childhood as a young girl. When observing his behaviors, his other actions, his thoughts, his infatuation and borderline obsession, and applying it to the context of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it easily comes off that he wished to live vicariously, through this imperialistic view of nostalgia, as a little girl, specifically as a fictitious version of Alice Liddell, his most beloved subject.

 In the story,  Alice very frequently asks questions about her identity, as during her time in Wonderland, she doesn’t ever quite feel like herself as she’s experiencing these magical things around her. This is especially so when she’s comparing herself to her peers, which I feel is a subtle hint to Dodgson’s questioning who he truly is in relation to those around him. Another reason to suspect this is at the end when it’s revealed that it is all a dream and then leaps into the perspective of the older sister. The sister can briefly capture the world it is Alice had just experienced, but soon opens her eyes to acknowledge that she, indeed, still in the world she was before, can be an allusion to Dodgson’s temporary moment in this state of living, via the text. This moment allows readers into Dodgson’s actual perception by breaking the barrier of the fictional world and bridging into Dodgson’s real life desires.

Though Dodgson’s behaviors are definitely something to be called in question, the idea that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is quite possibly a way of Dodgson expressing his wanting to have experienced childhood as a young girl, and finds himself as one who views young adulthood through the eyes of a child, his own forgotten and replaced by a re-imagining of this beloved fantasy world.  

Works Cited

“Just Good Friends? Was There Something Sinister About Lewis Carroll’s Fixation With seven-year-old Alice Liddell? Not Necessarily, Says Katie Roiphe.” The Guardian US Edition, The Guardian 29 Oct, 2001 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/29/gender.uk

“A Taste of Nostalgia: Children’s Books from the Golden Age—Carroll, Grahame, and Milne” Hemmings, Robert, https://s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com

“Who Really Inspired Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ Characters?” Masters, Kristen, 27 August, 2014 https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/who-really-inspired-lewis-carrolls-alice-characters

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28 thoughts on “Nostalgia, Gender Expression, and The identity of Lewis Carrol

  1. This is a fascinating take on Carroll. From what I have read the parents’ of Alice Liddell gave him permission to take the illicit photographs. That does not make the actions appropriate, but perhaps there is more to Carroll’s fixation than we will ever know. Having modern research on gender identity gives us material that is worth exploring in regards to the idea that Carroll felt misidentified as a man. Perhaps he was not able to put these thoughts into words any other way than to write through Alice’s eyes.

    • This is an excellent post, Chris! I. agree with Carrie, I hadn’t thought about the ways in which Dodgson might be dealing with his own gender struggles via his exploration of Alice. What textual examples can we find that might support this reading?

      • This idea of gender almost feels like a relief of sorts. It would be far more comfortable as a reader to consider Carroll dealing with gender identity than dealing with pedophilia.

        Some of the parts where Alice is reflecting on her change and how she feels might speak to this idea. After the pool of tears incident when Alice is fanning herself in the hallway, she states, “Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle” (Carroll 9)! Alice seems to be having an existential crisis, which could be a direct reflection of Carroll’s feelings. While he definitely told parts of the story in the boat to the girls, it’s possible and even probable that he added details when he sat down and wrote it out–details where he could have explored his feelings a bit more.

        Another example of this is when the caterpillar asks Alice who she is. She responds, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present–at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then” (Carroll 23). When the caterpillar demands that she explain herself, she states, “I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir, because I’m not myself, you see” (Carroll 23). Alice is trying to figure out why her body feels as it does and does what it does. She’s trying to apply reason to a fantastic and mad experience she’s having. Is it possible that her feelings of displacement and not being herself reflect these emotions in Carroll himself? I think–absolutely. And as I said, that would be a far more pleasant way of looking at his obsession.

        • I really love these examples from the text! I think it’s also important that Alice physically changes multiple times in the novel as well. Her body is constantly changing when she grows bigger and smaller. She not only knows who she is as a person but her body is also a mystery as well as it keeps changing. This can also be evidence for Carroll’s self-explorations about his own gender identity through Alice as well.

      • I think Chris is focusing on the discomfort Alice feels from the constant changing of size and applying that to Dodgson as a way to imply his discomfort with his own gender-identity. I was unable to find a textual example of female gender implicitly– though I see your point. The idea that Dodgson wished to live as a female girl is certainly unique, but it is not relying on specific gendered examples in the text; rather, Alice’s continued discomfort with her physical existence and constant need to chance size to adapt to the situations she finds herself in.

        • I wonder if the emphasis on size-changing, especially as it relates to specific feminist spaces (like being trapped in the rabbit’s house, i.e. the domestic sphere), might be one example, but again that is referring specifically to lived experience as a woman. I’ve always thought Carroll dealt with that particular gender-based emotion quite empathically.

      • I agree with Jenny’s examples, especially the two on page 23 of the novel, but George also gets the perspective I approached the text in general, that Alice’s constant discontent in herself from the situations around her come off Carroll’s self-expression trough her. However to give an example that I think makes this point is when she speaks of The Duchess’s child, saying “ If it had grown up,’ she said to herself, ‘it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.’; and she began thinking over other children she knew, who might do very well as pigs, and was just saying to herself, ‘if one only knew the right way to change them-‘” is the most outstanding example of this. It comes off as a subtle reminder of his viewership that quite possibly relates to his distaste in the male sex again.

    • Another thought about when looking at the use of the young girls depicted in photography and the fact that Carroll was an artist (writer and photographer) – the Victorian era was a restrained time, but they used the muses and goddesses in art work. The photograph with Alice kissing Carroll could have been nothing more than Alice the muse kissing, thus inspiring, Carroll the writer.

  2. The fact that Alice questions her identity a lot is one of my favorite aspects of the story. I love that she’s constantly going on to herself in wonder of who she is and if she’s someone else. That paired with her never being the right size—until the moment in court. Is especially telling of how she perceives herself—in that she doesn’t really know how to.
    I like your take on the idea that Carroll wants to just experience childhood through the eyes of another. While this may come off as slightly problematic—seeing as Carroll is considered to possibly be a pedophile and LGBT and pedophilia do not correlate—I do wonder if maybe they’ve been going about it all wrong. Perhaps the reason Carroll was so obsessed with the young female form, and thinking that the form of young boys was not right is because he wished to do more than just experience the childhood of a young girl—but rather had experienced being a young girl all together. Perhaps, Carroll’s romanticism for young girls is rooted in him wishing that he could have been one. Sometimes when we can’t be something, we aspire to be as close to it as possible. Just a thought (sorry I’m a psych major by the way!).

    • A’iesha definitely brings up an interesting point that Carroll’s romanticism for young girls was because he wanted to be one. If this were the case, it makes sense that he would possibly want to take on the persona of Alice – a young girl – not only for the purpose of writing it for Alice Liddell but also to live through her in this story.

      • Does this analysis fit with the origin of the story as one he told the girls as they sailed alone? I thought these stories started pretty off the cuff and were written down at the urging of the children. If that is the case, I wonder how much the issues being proposed here could have come into his consciousness while he was initially crafting these stories, though it certainly could have occurred during subsequent revisions.

    • I wholly agree and believe that romanticism plays a direct key to that concept of “Imperialistic Nostalgia,” and how the adult takes authority over the idea of childhood. You’re point of Carroll romanticizing younger girls i think plays deeply into that concept of nostalgia and is the very basis to how the story came about-by being a representation of wanting to project that possibility of living through the eyes of the young girls he adored.

    • I really like your take on this, A’iesha. The whole point on romanticism is really interesting as well. I completely hadn’t thought of this, and I’m really deep into thinking about this currently.

  3. This is a very interesting take on Carroll! I read different material regarding his slight obsession with young girls but never thought about it from this side of things. I think it is definitely worth looking into as people take are becoming more knowledgable about gender identity.

    I think Carroll can be seen through many of the characters in the story but I never thought to look for him in the character of Alice. However, after reading this suggestion it would make sense for him to be seen in Alice as well, as she struggles with her identity all throughout wonderland.

    I think Carroll could have also been nostalgic to simply be younger as he spent a lot of time with children. Whether he was questioning his gender identity or was obsessed with young girls, Carroll seems to have a negative connotation with middle-aged women. Carroll paints the Duchess and the Red Queen to be aggressive, middle-aged women. I think he could have been doing this either because he preferred younger women or because he was fearful of age himself (although this might not even be the case).

    Regardless of whether he had a slight obsession with girls because he was a pedophile or because he wanted to live through them – Carroll definitely questioned his identity which can be seen through the story in Alice.

    • I noticed the same thing concerning the middle-aged women! After reading, I tried to think of any non-male characters besides Alice, and realized the only other female humans were women who were a lot older and not seen in the best light by Alice. Even the cook was aggressive when she would throw things at the Duchess in the house. Most of the other main characters that Alice meets were males. I do wonder if there’s a reason for why Carroll included more male characters than female, and why most characters were much older than Alice, besides some of the baby animals in the beginning of the story.

    • I completely agree with your statement! Perhaps Carroll was trying to create the perfect childhood through the character of Alice. Notice on how the whimsical characters like Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter, and the Rabbit had a childlike “light” to them. However, other adult characters like the Red Queen and her subjects were bigoted and aggressive.

      I do not believe he was questioning his identity when writing this novel. I believe he was fantasizing of a life of being a girl. His nostalgia is not based on himself, but on life may be somewhat more sweeter through the eyes of a little girl.

    • I agree that even outside of the context of possibly viewing gender identity that he could have simply been nostalgic. In interacting with all of the children he did, it could be that he felt like he just needed a way to go back and experience that childlike state of imagination and creativity he most likely encountered with them and in an effort to capture it wrote Alice in Wonderland. I also agree with the idea that he just in general doesn’t like the idea of getting older. An example is the perspective of Alice’s sister at the end, which in itself is nostalgic. How she can visualize the dreams that Alice was having, but knows that she’s grounded in reality plays to the idea that when you’re older, in Carrol’s eyes, you don’t see the world like you used to

  4. One particularly interesting focus, given this thread is the characters’ obsession with categorization. How might examples of categories as nonsense tie into this interesting topic?

    • I believe the preoccupation with ordering and categories does tie into this topic through the binary of the male and the female. Alice defies this binary in many ways. She has inclinations toward adventure and curiosity, which are characteristics that are typically reserved for boys. Her defiance of certain gender norms further supports the theme of categories as nonsense.

  5. Chris, your perspective on childhood nostalgia is interesting! I didn’t stop to think about the possibility that Carroll himself identifies with Alice, since we were given sufficient background information on the writing of the story. It’s pretty clear that Carroll wrote the story out of his fancy for Alice Liddell. After perusing Hemmings’s article, though, it is possible that Carroll was attempting to envision his life as a young girl through the lens of Alice. Hemmings writes, “At its very roots, nostalgia is linked with the trauma of deprivation and loss.” (Hemmings, 55). It could be that at some point in the writing, Carroll drew from that feeling of “deprivation and loss”, of being deprived of the experience of life as a young girl, to create the character of Alice in the story.

  6. I really enjoyed your take on this! As a psychology major and someone who holds a special interest in Lgbt+ theories and literature, I found it fascinating that you correlated a classic piece of literature with a theory about why Carrol chose to have a specific interested in young women, without having an overly biased accusatory stance while writing. While reading your piece, it made me think about the repression that people in the community, even people who ar not out yet may have faced during that time. With the repression that they may have faced, people like Carrol could be forced to find other methods to cope with themselves. After reading this and many of the insightful comments on your piece, I decided to delve into a bit of research of LGBT topics in the Victorian era. I do have a question for my fellow bloggers. Do you believe that Carrol not only potentially shunned himself because of the repercussions of coming out in the Victorian age but the fact that coming out in this way would potentially resign himself to be the “ideal” Victorian woman?

    Personally, along with what my other classmates have mentioned before, I find that Carrol does have an interesting way of expressing changes in a young woman’s body that he may have wished to experience, or even observed closely through his relationship with the inspiration behind the story. Another question I have is do you think Carrol’s expressions for growing up and changing is just purely imaginative? Or do you believe the clever phrases and use of the objects to change Alice’s size and identity is a clever way to express his desires without the fear of repercussion from society/ the fear of not getting his story out there if he outwardly expressed why he put Alice through so many changes?

  7. It is certainly a new concept for me to think of Carroll as using Alice to encompass a want to have been a girl in his youth. It does make sense when I think about it though! For some reason, my initial thought was that he wanted to seek the nostalgia of being young, and he chose a girl because it related more to the Liddell sisters, but it is definitely possible that he would choose that viewpoint to help express a want to have been a girl in his past. And writing a story about a character like Alice would definitely give him a way to encompass his dream through her role years later.
    I feel like the feeling of nostalgia is also seen through different things that we experience as kids and not that we no longer experience it, but it happens less as we grow up. For example, the times when you were a child and the things that seemed so simple to adults made no sense to you as a child. Adults would sometimes make fun of you for your silliness at not knowing. Or when the animals would get offended by all of Alice’s questions. Children are known to ask lots of questions, sometimes about simple details that seem very important to them but have less importance in the eyes of the person answering the child’s questions. There’s also the feeling of being too small to reach something in a cabinet, like Alice when she tries to grab the key after she has shrunk.
    I also feel like reading the book itself as an older reader gives a feeling of nostalgia as you go through the adventures with a younger child like Alice. Even seeing illustrations in the book and reading how Alice said that books without illustrations and conversations have no use (Carroll 9) gave me a sense of nostalgia for remembering when I used to read picture books and needed the pictures to help me give me a better idea of what was happening in the story.

  8. Chris,
    I really love the way that you compared the past to the present in your post. I think that it is very interesting that in the past, his infatuation with little girls could lead others to think that he was perhaps a predator, but in today’s society, it could lead to us believing that Dodgson envied the life lived by little girls. I truly agree with this statement, because as someone who works with young children daily, it is easy to see that they are perhaps the most imaginative people on the face of the earth. The young girls that I work with could take anything and make it into something amazing. For example, one of the young girls in my class draws such beautiful pictures, but they never truly make sense. To her, they make perfect sense in her imaginative state. Through the characters portrayed in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dodgson could have been displaying to the world what he believed it would have been like to have the imagination of a young girl. Surely the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and all of the nonsense surrounding Alice in her whimsical dream would lead me to believe so!

  9. Everyone else has already expressed it, but what an interesting perspective! I definitely see a correlation between how Carroll expressed Alice’s size changing throughout the story to how uncomfortable he might’ve felt if he identified as transgender, especially during the Victorian time period where femininity and masculinity were both very much tunnel vision ideas as what was socially accepted at the time. I really liked the example you used from the text where it’s Alice talking about children and pigs. When I read that part I didn’t make any connection to potential gender identity ideas but it definitely fits. At the very least it calls into question Carrolls opinions of males. I was wondering what your take is on how he portrays the King? He’s a very passive character that contrasts heavily compared to that of the Queen, so perhaps that was all he was intended for. But what if we played into this idea of Carroll’s potential negative view of men; how could that change our interpretation of the King and potentially other male characters in the book? Is there any other evidence to support his negative view of men or are the male characters used simply to provide contrast to the female characters to make them feel more distasteful or extreme?

    • I think you bring up an excellent point when you talk about Carrol’s potential attitude towards men. Although his view towards women tends to be more prominent in both his life and his literature, his views on men should be explored as well. I remember making a comment about the King’s passiveness compared to the Queen’s “Off with your head!” attitude. I’m not sure if Carrol has a negative view towards men, but I find that he may choose to portray women in a stronger light to purposely contrast against the Victorian standards for women. Both Alice and the Queen of hearts defy this notion of what a good woman should be. But on the same note, the King also defies social expectations. From what I understand of Victorian social structures, the men typically tend to be more dominant/rule imposers.
      With your question in mind, I will definitely think about certain scenes and see if anything jumps out at me about Caroll’s potential distaste for men!

  10. I feel that everyone at some point questions who they are. Doesn’t matter if you’re a child or an adult. It does seem that Dodgson projects himself into Alice. People want to go on adventures and explore what is out there in the world. This book is nostalgic because of that fact. People want to live in a fantasy world and explore all the possibilities.

  11. Chris,
    I think this is a very interesting take on Charles Dodgson and not entirely unlikely. As I’ve read this story and about Dodgson’s relationship with the real-life Alice and other young girls, I have been very conflicted. While there is no evidence that his fixation on this girls crossed the line into inappropriate actions, this apparent attraction has always made me uncomfortable. The article Professor DeSpain shared with us from The Guardian has shifted my opinion to a certain extent and has made me more sympathetic toward Dodgson and the struggle he seems to have faced.

    I do believe there is a good argument for Dodgson to have experienced a degree of body dysmorphia and to have perhaps identified more with the female gender than with his own. As you pointed out, this story may be from Alice’s point of view because Dodgson longed to have had this experience as a child in the body of a young girl. Alice is quite uncertain about her own identity throughout the story, especially toward the beginning of her adventures in Wonderland. An upset Alice, after growing to a larger size for the first time, begins to wonder if she had somehow changed over night and then continues to ponder whether she could have traded places with another young girl (p. 17-18).

    Dodgson also displayed a disdain for young boys which opposed his attraction to and idealization of young girls. This can be illustrated in the scene in which the Duchess’ baby boy turns into a pig. In a footnote, editor Hugh Haughton describes Dodgson’s possible attitude toward boys (p. 309-310). To me, this does suggest that he may have been unsatisfied with his own gender and identity.

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